From a Window: a Leonard Cohen Retrospective

Leonard CohenPlenty of musicians have dabbled in different art forms, but how many would have been recognised if they had not first found success as a musician? Not many, but there are a few exceptions, including this person, Leonard Cohen. Cohen was a renowned poet and author before he even set foot in the music world, with his first book of poetry released at the young age of 22, more than a decade before his debut album.

Cohen was born in Westmount, a neighbourhood of Montreal in Canada, into a Jewish family. He spent most of the 1960s living and writing on the Greek island of Hydra. During this time, Cohen released one book of poetry and two novels, but with a lack of financial success, he decided moved to the United States to become a singer songwriter.

Cohen has long been an outsider: too young to be a part of the 50s beat generation and too old to fully embrace the late 60s counterculture movement. He began his music career and released his classic late 1967 debut album Songs Of Leonard Cohen, aged 33. While Cohen was recording his debut album, psychedelic rock and fuzzy guitar riffs from the Summer of Love were the dominant sound reverberating around the major cities of San Francisco and New York City. On the other side, Cohen was capturing an entirely different sound and atmosphere. When looking back on his album, it defies the zeitgeist, and still is wholly free from time. As Cohen came to folk via poetry, his lyrics have more depth and structural focus then the usual singer songwriter’s lyrics. With Cohen setting his poetry to an acoustic guitar and some additional instrumentation, the album contains some of Cohen’s most iconic songs such as “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne”. Along with the known tracks are some of most eloquent songs that have ever been written, it is one of the greatest debut albums of all time.

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Cohen’s next two studio albums continue in a similar vein as austere folk albums, but his second - Songs From A Room, released in 1969 - is much more stark and sparse in production. In 1970, Cohen was tasked to perform in front of 600,000 angry festival goers at the prominent Isle of Wight festival, following a performance by Jimi Hendrix – at two in the morning. The organisers were not asking for much from Cohen, were they? Like the master Cohen is, he tamed the crowd from their frenzied state to making them fall into a trance. The performance of “Joan of Arc” made it onto Cohen’s third studio album Songs Of Love And Hate, released in 1971. Another three studio albums were released in the 1970s, including for some people, the questionable album of Death of a Ladies’ Man. The album was produced and co-written with the notorious Phil Spector. Picture the combination of Spector’s wall of sound with Cohen singing pop and doo-wop songs. Quite baffling, isn’t it? It is so dissimilar to what Cohen ever made before or since, that there's a charm to the record for that very reason. The sessions were not without chaos, and there was that one incident when Spector pushed a loaded gun into Cohen’s neck, cocked the trigger, and said, “Leonard, I love you.”

When the 80s came, many of the musicians who came out of 60s and 70s struggled to adapt to the aesthetics of the decade, and when they tried to adjust some fell short, like Bob Dylan. Others, like Tom Waits, went in the completely opposite direction by creating music in different styles to the time and as a result, benefited from not following the 80s sound. Cohen on the other hand, had a renaissance. As a just-turned 50 year old man in 1984, Cohen embraced the 80s and found new possibilities within his style – like his new baritone voice and the use of synth. In the same year, Cohen released Various Positions, his first studio album in five years. Even with the gap between the records and songs like “Dance Me To The End of Love” and “Hallelujah”, Columbia Records decided not to release the album in the US. The latter song has become one of the most covered songs of all time. If you asked a person, have they heard the song “Hallelujah” before? Most would answer yes (either due to Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright or most likely Alexandra Burke’s version from that repugnant talent show) but much less would the know the answer to who wrote and sang the original “Hallelujah”. And probably, that is a good thing. Various Positions paved the way of what was to come from Cohen next. It was not steeped in synth pop like his 1988 follow up I’m Your Man, albeit it had enough casino keyboards, to know that this was something new, a transformation by Cohen.

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Cohen released one album in the 1990s, but in the same decade retreated to a Zen monastery for five years and released two albums in early 2000s. After Cohen’s former manager stole from his personal accounts and investments, Cohen embarked on a world tour in 2008 that ended in 2010. Cohen released another great album, Old Ideas back in 2012 and a day after his 80th  birthday released his 13th studio album titled Popular Problems.

Overall, there is no one like Cohen. He is a mysterious and intelligent singer songwriter who has captured the struggles of the human condition so well in the written word. For fans, even though he can be nihilistic there is often this comfort you feel when listening to Cohen, as though under his presence, his wisdom is supporting you through your existential troubles. Like the late great Lou Reed said, “We are so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is.”

Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back, They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track, But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone, I'll be speaking to you sweetly, From a window in the Tower of Song.”

Leonard Cohen has certainly cemented his place in the pantheon of the all-time great songwriters and will definitely be heard from the “Tower of Song” by generations to come.

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